August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at Rochester’s Geva Theatre

August Wilson

Whatever else has been on the season’s playbill at Rochester’s Geva Theatre the last four years, the play we’ve looked forward to the most each has been a play by August Wilson.  Geva has been doing one play from his Pittsburgh cycle each year, and we’ve loved them all — Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904),  The Piano Lesson (set in 1936), Fences (set in 1959; see Emsworth’s delighted review), and now this season’s play, Two Trains Running (set in 1969).  Indeed, we still have fond memories of a joyful Jitney (set in 1977) mounted by Geva in April 1999.

Pittsburgh's Hill District, seen from the Monongahela River around 1935

Two Trains Running tells the stories of the folks who hang around Memphis Lee’s ill-patronized diner in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  Memphis himself (A. C. Smith) is bracing for a fight with city authorities over the value of his building, which is being condemned for urban renewal.  He wants his price — $25,000 — but doesn’t really expect to get it after a lifetime of seeing black men cheated and robbed of their dignity.  Memphis himself, as a young man, was driven out of Jackson, Mississippi by white men who aimed to demean and humiliate him as much as to rob him.  

A. C. Smith plays Memphis Lee

Memphis has no use for the ways his friends cope with poverty and racial oppression.  His young friend Sterling Johnson (Javon Johnson) is excited about a black power rally at which Malcolm X will be speaking, but Memphis tears down the poster Wolf pins on the wall of the diner.  His young waitress Risa (Patrese D. McClain) quotes the Bible and sends her tithes to Prophet Samuel, a charismatic local preacher; Memphis scoffs at the Prophet’s money-grubbing.  Sterling, who has fallen for Risa, fantasizes about Cadillacs but is more interested in petty crime than hard work; Memphis sadly predicts that Sterling will soon be back in the penitentiary.  

Memphis can barely abide the half-crazed Hambone (David Shakes) and his fixation on being paid the ham he was promised nine years earlier for painting a fence; Memphis berates Risa for her kindness to Hambone.  And Memphis cannot bring himself to do what his best friend Holloway (Alfred Wilson) recommends to everyone: go down Wiley Avenue to see the 322-year-old Aunt Ester, a semi-mystical seer who appears, on-stage or off, in several Wilson plays.  Yet skeptical as he is that there can be justice for a black man, Memphis intends, perhaps for the first time in his life, to take a stand for his own dignity and to insist on his price for his building. 

Patrese D. McClain has a sharp stage presence as Risa, waitress and object of Sterling Johnson's desire

And as August Wilson sadly shows, oppressed black folk sometimes oppressed one another in turn.  Early in the play, Memphis gains our sympathy with his story of how his wife left him for no good reason — but as the play goes on and we see Memphis’s harsh treatment of Risa, we understand better what life might have been like for a woman of his. Prophet Samuel preys on his congregation. Everyone plays the numbers, but as Holloway explains, the numbers racket means that money just moves from one black person to another.  The wealthy undertaker West, who owns much of the neighborhood, is eager to make a low-ball offer for Memphis’s building. 

We liked these vivid characters more than we can say.  True, we didn’t grow up black in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where all these plays are set, and we certainly didn’t suffer racial oppression, but we did grow up among working-class people in western Pennsylvania, and we identify strongly with Pittsburgh, its people, and their ways.  We knew folks who talked like Troy Maxon, in Fences, and Memphis Lee, in Two Trains Running.  Like Sterling Johnson in Two Trains Running, our relatives sought work from J & L Steel.  And we were in our mid-teens in 1969, when the story of this play takes place. 

A. C. Smith in a fall 2009 production by Chicago's Court Theatre of August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The cast of Two Trains Running is excellent, though not quite to the standards of last year’s Fences (see Emsworth’s review). The actors and director Ron OJ Parson are based in Chicago, according to the program notes, and are veterans of a number of August Wilson plays. A. C. Smith, a large man, is an imposing yet vulnerable Memphis Lee; the lovely Patrese D. McClain stands out as the clear-eyed waitress Risa. 

Two Trains Running is a rich play with many more subplots and layers than we can mention here (and the characters all have a penchant for storytelling), but nothing gets lost in this well-directed production.  The performance we liked best was Alfred H. Wilson’s as Holloway, who from his side booth offers shrewd, sardonic commentary on everyone else’s troubles. Mr. Wilson has a marvelously expressive voice and stage presence — oddly, though, more than once he seemed to be struggling for his lines.